Dreamweaver, Text Editors, and Webmasters

I picked up on this article on Friday, glanced through it and moved on, but noticed this evening it had been slashdotted -- at which point I realized the author is the current CGI::Application maintainer, so I looked again.

At my first glance through it, it appeared the author was looking for a nice, easy-to-use pre-processor script for generating a site out of templates and content files. To that end, he, in the end, recommended ttree, part of the Template Toolkit distribution.

However, the real gist of the article -- something that should probably have been summarized at the end -- is that the author was looking for an free and OSS replacement for DreamWeaver's Templates functionality. This functionality allows a developer to create a template with placeholders for content, lock it, and then create pages that have the bits and pieces of content. Finally, the developer compiles the site -- creating final HTML pages out of the content merged with the templates.

Now, I can see something like this being useful. I've used webmake for a couple of projects, and, obviously, utilize PHP in many places as a templating language. However, several comments on Slashdot also gave some pause. The tone of these comments was to the effect of, "real developers shouldn't use DW; they should understand HTML and code it directly." Part of me felt this was elitist -- the web is such an egalitarian medium that there should be few barriers to entry. However, the webmaster in me -- the professional who gets paid each pay period and makes a living off the web -- also agreed with this substantially.

I've worked -- both professionally and as a freelancer -- with individuals who use and rely on DW. The problem I see with the tool and others of its breed is precisely their empowerment of people. Let me explain.

I really do feel anybody should be able to have a presence on the 'net. However, HTML is a fragile language: trivial errors can cause tremendous changes in how a page is rendered -- and even crash browsers on occasion. The problem I see is that DW and other GUI webpage applications create, from my viewpoint, garbage HTML. I cannot tell you how many pages generated by these applications that I've had to clean up and reformat. They spuriously add tags, often around empty content, that are simply unnecessary.

The problem is compounded when individuals have neither time nor inclination to learn HTML, but continue using the tool to create pages. They get a false sense of accomplishment -- that can be quickly followed by a very real sense of incompetence when the page inexplicably breaks due to an edit they've made -- especially when the content is part of a larger framework that includes other files. Of course, as a web professional, I get paid to fix such mistakes. But I feel that this does everybody a disservice -- the individual/company has basically paid twice for the presentation of content -- once to the person generating it, a second time to me to fix the errors.

This is a big part of the reason why I've been leaning more and more heavily on database-driven web applications. Content then goes into the database, and contains minimal -- if any -- markup. It is then injected into templates, which go through a formal review process, as well as through the W3C validators, to prevent display problems. This puts everybody in a position of strength: the editor generating content, the designer creating the look-and-feel, and the programmer developing the methods for mapping content with the templates.

There's still a part of me that struggles with what I perceive as an elitist position. However, there's another part of me that has struggled heavily with the multitasking demands made on all web professionals -- we're expected to be editors, graphic designers, programmers, and more. In most cases, we're lucky if we're strong in one or two such areas, much less passionate about staying abreast of the changing face of our medium.

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